Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bad Objections to the Moral Argument (p. 3)

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Bad Objections to the Moral Argument
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Bad Objection #5: The Euthyphro dilemma shows that God doesn’t ground morality


The Euthyphro dilemma goes something like this: for any X that is good, “Does God will it because X is good, or is X good because God wills it?” On the first horn of the dilemma (God wills X because it is good), what goodness is becomes external to God, and therefore isn’t grounded in God. God simply recognizes what is good and then wills it. On the second horn of the dilemma (X is good because God wills it) God arbitrarily creates what goodness is in the sense that it could have been anything; God could have created goodness in such a way that it is good to torture infants just for fun, for example. So no matter which horn of the dilemma the theist picks, things look dire for the claim that God is the foundation of morality. The Euthyphro dilemma therefore gives us excellent grounds for thinking that God does not ground morality. Thus the moral argument should not be accepted as sound.


There are a number of problems with this objection (see my article on the Euthyphro dilemma), but in this case the problem is that even if the Euthyphro objection is right about God not grounding morality, that is irrelevant to the deductive moral argument. No part of the moral argument says that God is the foundation of morality. Premise (1) simply states that objective morality doesn’t exist if atheism is true, and this doesn’t imply that God grounds morality. One could even be an atheist and accept premise (1). Premise (2) also doesn’t imply that God is the foundation of morality, since all premise (2) says is that objective morality exists.

Do the two premises together entail that God grounds morality? No. Both premises being true entails that God exists along with objective morality, but that doesn’t imply that God grounds objective morality. Neither the premises individually nor their combination entails that God grounds morality, and the argument’s conclusion (which is simply “God exists”) doesn’t say that God grounds morality either. The upshot is that the Euthyphro dilemma just isn’t relevant at all. The fact, if it were so, that God isn’t the foundation of morality doesn’t attack any premise of the argument, and if the premises are true the conclusion follows whether one likes it or not.

Does God not being able to ground morality undermine the justification for any premise? It doesn’t do so for premise (2), but does it do so for premise (1)? No. One can justify premise (1) by arguing that objective morality is unlikely on atheism, and this doesn’t at all rely on God grounding objective morality. To illustrate, consider the atheist who accepts the justification that objective morality probably doesn’t exist if atheism is true. The objection “God doesn’t ground morality” won’t do anything to convince her that the justification for the first premise fails.

This objection’s use of the Euthyphro dilemma against the soundness of the moral argument commits the red herring fallacy; the objection does nothing to show that there is a false or unjustified premise, and indeed it doesn’t even address that issue. And if there is no false or unjustified premise, the premises are justifiably true and one should accept the deductively valid moral argument as sound.


The moral argument being discussed was this:

    (1) If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist.
    (2) Objective morality does exist.
    (3) Therefore, God exists.

The problem with the bad objections mentioned here fall into two groups: If premises (1) and (2) are justifiably true, then the conclusion follows whether one likes it or not, and it’s just doesn’t matter whether morality can exist without God, whether the Euthyphro dilemma shows that God doesn’t ground morality, or whether God can’t be used to explain something. None of those things would show that a premise is false.

When facing an objection to some deductively valid argument, ask yourself these questions: “Does this objection show that a premise is false? Does the objection attack the justification for a premise?” If the objection attacks neither a premise nor the justification for a premise, you might have a red herring.

Not all objections to the moral argument make the mistakes I mentioned (straw men etc.). For example, one objection is that evolution undercuts our justification for believing in objective morality (I discuss the evolution objection here). I don’t think that objection works, but at least it has the decency of not erecting straw men or throwing red herrings, and it doesn’t rely on an uncharitable interpretation of the moral argument.

Advice for Theists

It’s also worth mentioning that one needn’t believe the premises to be true with absolute certainty. If each premise is more plausible than its denial, that’s enough for the moral argument to have at least some evidential merit for theism (notice how odd it would be to concede that each premise is more plausible than its denial yet reject the conclusion). If you dialogue with an atheist about this argument (or any other deductively valid argument for theism), I recommend asking something like, “Do you agree that the premises are more plausible than their denials? If not, which premise do you think isn’t and why?” It might not hurt to remind the atheist that a false premise is the only way for the conclusion to be false.

Advice for Atheists

Please remember that a false premise is the only way for the conclusion to be false. If you think the deductive moral argument is unsound, attack a premise. Show that a premise is false or show that the justification given for a premise fails (if the theist hasn’t offered any justification, you have my permission to point this out). Throwing red herrings and attacking straw men just wastes everybody’s time, and we all know atheists can be better than that.

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